Whether you’re a home gardener, a farmer or perhaps a hiker who tries to identify as many of Tennessee’s native trees and wildflowers as you can while out on our trails, plants became an important part of your life at some point. Fact is, plants sustain life.
Researchers with the UT Institute of Agriculture recently solicited online nominations to help determine a list of the 10 plants that have had the greatest impact on Tennessee. Participants in the project submitted the name of a single plant that fit into one of six categories: food, economy, health, history, landscape and spiritual or cultural. The nominated plants could have either a positive or negative impact across the state’s history.
When I read about this interesting research, I immediately thought about Tennessee’s three grand divisions. Plants that, historically, represent mainly flat West Tennessee won’t always be the same as those representing mountainous East Tennessee.
Responses from between 600 and 700 entries resulted in the following final 10 plants: kudzu, cotton, tobacco, ginseng, American chestnut tree, several varieties of beans, corn, dogwood, prairie grass and turf grass, white oak.
I wonder what people in Blount County, and other counties in the Appalachian area, would include on their list. Some of these same selections surely would be included. My first choice was not on the list. How about you? What plant would you choose?
Kudzu might seem like an odd selection, but then it is seemingly everywhere. Today, it has a negative effect. Unbelievably, it was promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1930s to prevent and control soil erosion.
Tobacco certainly belongs on the list. For thousands of years, this crop shaped Appalachian culture and economy. Tobacco cultivation spread into East Tennessee by the early 19th century. In more isolated communities, the crop served as a direct form of currency. By 2000, tobacco production in Tennessee was virtually a thing of the past.
In the minds of many people, ginseng is linked to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains struggle to keep poachers out of the national park in the fall. A native plant association promotes the sustainable cultivation and marketing of the plant.
The American chestnut blight, an ecologically devastating pathogen, eliminated the most prolific nut-producing tree in the temperate forest. Before the blight hit in the 1940s, about a third of all trees in the Smoky Mountains were chestnuts. Researchers work toward recovery of the tree.
Corn became the cornerstone of the Appalachian diet, as it had been for centuries for the natives before the white settler’s arrival. People boil it, roast it, fry it, can it by itself or in combination with green beans, dry it, or make meal out of it for bread.
Beans long have been another food staple in this neck of the woods. Green beans are sometimes called “snap” beans or “string” beans. Shuck beans, or “leather britches,” are dried green beans. Shelly beans are dried on the vine, then shelled. Soup beans and brown beans are a readily available food source with a long shelf life.
The other plant representative of our area, on UT’s list, is the dogwood. I know Harvey Broome would not have argued with that assessment.
Broome was a founding member of the Wilderness Society and he fought for the Smokies to become a national park. The East Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club bears his name. He and his wife, Anne, were friends of my parents and, in the ’50s they took our family hiking more than once. Both explained the wonders of what unfolded before two inquisitive little girls in the mountains.
But on this day in 1952, Mr. Broome hiked up the Middle Prong in the Greenbrier area of the park with Royal Shanks, a plant ecologist and professor of botany at UT.
He said, in his book, “Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies,” “It is futile to choose favorites, but for sheer color, dainty and unassuming perfection, the dwarf iris stands high. Among trees, the ‘sarvis’ bears close inspection. And for mass effects, the redbuds and dogwoods stand together.”